Bauhaus at the Barbican: art as life

Posted filed underArchitecture, Bauhaus, Design, Shows.

At a time when idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican is a timely reminder of this bold and beautiful experiment.

Excellent story in The Guardian: “Any mention of the Bauhaus conjures up a sequence of those well-known design objects: a Wagenfeld lamp, a Marianne Brandt teapot, a Marcel Breuer chair. But the Bauhaus was much more than the originator of such now iconic artefacts. It was an idea, a vision of the future, a community of artists and designers whose joie de vivre and dedication made it for a while, until the Nazis killed it, the most celebrated art school in the world.

The concept for the Bauhaus – literally “building house” – came from Walter Gropius, one of the great visionary thinkers of the 20th century and a practising architect himself, from a Berlin dynasty of architects. His famous great uncle Martin Gropius designed the Kunstgewerbe museum, the building now known as Martin Gropius Bau.

The young Gropius’s idea for the Bauhaus emerged from his experience of the first world war in which he served as a cavalry officer on the western front for almost the whole four years. His response to the devastating scenes he lived through was a stark determination to “start again from zero”. Only a new outlook on design and architecture could provide the means for a shattered civilisation literally to rebuild itself.

His opportunity came in 1919 when he was appointed master of the school of arts and crafts in Weimar that became the Bauhaus. Gropius’s vision was for the “unification of the arts under the wings of great architecture”. It was a democratic concept of art for the people, art for social betterment in which everyone would share. The Bauhaus aesthetic replaced bourgeois furbelows with a geometry of clarity, sharp angles and straight lines.

The influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, great 19th-century artistic seers, is obvious. But Gropius was too thorough a modernist to put his faith completely in these ancient gods. He was involved as a member or a leader in the myriad small groups of revolutionary artists forming in the European cities of the period. The founding of the Bauhaus took place in the context of a whole movement of European expressionist ardour. The design for the cover of its manifesto, Lyonel Feininger’s jagged cathedral with three spires standing for architecture, arts and crafts, is a masterpiece of expressionist graphic art.

In its early years in Weimar, the character of the school was dominated by the Swiss-born painter Johannes Itten. It was Itten who, as Gropius’s “master of form”, invented the Bauhaus’s most lasting contribution to art education, the Vorkurs, the preliminary training course in basic forms, textures and colours for all students entering the school. It was also Itten, a mystic and follower of the esoteric Mazdaznan faith, who established the Bauhaus reputation for crankiness. Students followed him in shaving their heads, wearing loose robes and taking up the Mazdaznan macrobiotic diet consisting of “uncooked mush smothered in garlic”. In a fascinating essay on cooking at the Bauhaus, in the catalogue of the new Barbican exhibition, Nicholas Fox Weber quotes Gropius’s wife Alma Mahler complaining of all-pervasive “garlic on the breath”.”

Read on at The Guardian

The Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican